A 2-Time MVP with No Bag? What the Giannis Skill Police Don’t Understand

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Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Depending on how long the series goes, we’re roughly halfway through the 2021 NBA Finals, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has been, by far, the series’ best player.

Among the 16 from the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns with at least 10 field-goal attempts, Giannis leads in points, rebounds, blocks, free throws and box plus/minus (BPM is “a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court,” according to Basketball Reference).

In fact, Giannis’ 14.3 BPM would be the second-highest for a single Finals on record (the number is tracked on a game-by-game basis back to the 1984-85 season). If he finished with that number, only Michael Jordan’s 16.0 in the 1991 Finals would be superior.

For Antetokounmpo, this series should bring some sense of validation, following disappointing postseasons from his Bucks in 2019 and 2020. For his critics, it should be evidence that there’s more to his game than the obvious physical traits.

“I wish I could be 7 feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all,” James Harden told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in February 2020. “I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I’ll take that any day.”

Harden had finished second to Giannis in 2019 MVP voting, and he was a candidate again in 2019-20 when this interview happened (and of course, Giannis won again). In the heat of their mini rivalry, and not long removed from a nationally televised quip from Giannis about Harden’s unwillingness to pass, the comment isn’t that surprising. And it also may not be that unusual.

After Game 2, ESPN’s Richard Jefferson said“When Giannis is at his best … you don’t know if everyone benefits around that.”

Another personality and former player from that network, Kendrick Perkins, insisted that Giannis is more of a Robin to Khris Middleton’s Batman.

Those comments aren’t directly on point with Harden’s or the subject at hand, but they may be a symptom of a years-long debate on the amount of skill possessed by Giannis.

In February, Giannis seemingly entered the debate himself, posting a highlight reel with a simple caption.

Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo @Giannis_An34

Skills. https://t.co/85a8eUHKsk

The video is obviously far from dispositive. And even Antetokounmpo would likely admit that his size and athleticism have something to do with his dominance. But the point should be well taken.

Giannis isn’t the ball-handler Finals opponent Chris Paul is, but we shouldn’t be comparing him to lifetime point guards. Over the course of NBA history, how many players Giannis’ size (6’11” and 242 pounds) were trusted to lead fast breaks, run half-court sets and isolate from anywhere on the floor?

Sure, plenty facilitated from the post or mastered the dribble-handoff game, but prior to the last few years, trusting players as big as Giannis to handle the ball and create was exceptionally rare.

With as high as his center of gravity is, Giannis’ ability to keep crossovers low enough to avoid swiping hands is impressive. The agility it takes to Eurostep the way he does is something most big men could never dream of. And his spin move is like something out of Madden football.

It should also be noted that the ability to collect himself for finishes off the glass after such dynamic attacks is no small feat either.

Europeans like Arvydas Sabonis, Toni Kukoc and Hedo Turkoglu had plenty of playmaking responsibility, but they were nowhere near as explosive with it as Giannis is. Kevin Durant and Kevin Garnett may be the closest comps.

Both were trusted to bring the ball up the floor after a miss. And both were reliable drive-and-kick guys. Neither occupied the role of point man as often as Giannis does, though. And a career mark of 12.1 points generated by assists per 36 minutes suggests he’s done a decent job in that role.

Giannis also isn’t quite the passer Sabonis was or reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is. That doesn’t mean his own exploits there are without merit.

He can get to the paint at will. His kickouts feel more Westbrook-ian than LeBron-like, but they’re still effective. His force-of-nature drives pull defenders in the paint. Having the vision and awareness necessary to pass out of those drives, even if it isn’t always right to the shooting pocket, is absolutely a skill. And again, it’s one that few bigs prior to this era possessed.

He can also dominate with skills that are generally less celebrated than the highlight-generating step-backs or protracted isolations.

His vertical gravity as a rim runner and offensive rebounder are impactful. And though his inconsistent shooting has allowed opposing defenses to sag into the paint when he runs the pick-and-roll this postseason, he was dynamic there in the regular season. He’s a half-court weapon, despite what you may hear in the media or read in comment threads.

Giannis Antetokounmpo Play Types
PnR Ball-Handler 90th Percentile
Isolation 86th Percentile
Putback 84th Percentile
Transition 75th Percentile
PnR Roll Man 60th Percentile
NBA.com/stats

When you put it all together, it’s not hard to see why Milwaukee’s half-court offense put up 4.4 more points per 100 possessions and ranked in the 92nd percentile when Giannis was on the floor in 2020-21.

That shooting can be a problem, though. Career marks of 28.7 percent from three and 71.7 percent from the line suggest he may never conquer that final frontier, but fans and analysts wanting that might just be greedy. If Giannis shot like KD, we’re talking about the invincible 7-foot nightmare you created on NBA 2K as a kid.

Even without that, he’s put up numbers over the last three seasons that would’ve been unfathomable in previous eras: 28.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals in just 32.1 minutes. That’s basically prime Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a bit more passing.

And we haven’t even touched on the skill required for a 7-footer to stay with guards on the perimeter, protect the rim and clean the glass. Much of the above doesn’t fall into what we typically think as “bag”-type skills, but they are skills, nonetheless.

And if they allow him to generate this kind of production without taking a ton of step-back jumpers, fine.

Look, no one could reasonably argue that Giannis is as refined as Durant, Harden or plenty of other guards and wings. His bag of tricks isn’t likely to ever be as deep as theirs.

But when you combine the amount of skill he does have with his unique combination of size and athleticism, you get a fairly obvious choice for two MVP awards and someone who’s dominating the Finals in a way few others have.

Given Phoenix’s home-court advantage and a roster that currently appears a bit deeper (unless Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday step up), the Bucks could very well lose this series, but it won’t be on the hyper-skilled point center from Greece.

To this point in the Finals, Milwaukee is plus-10.3 points per 100 possessions when Giannis plays and minus-39.5 when he sits.

Not bad for a “Robin” who just runs and dunks.

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